Worcester County Veterans Memorial

WACKER, Willis W.

Local Veterans


United States Army
(66th Armored Regiment, 2nd Armored Division)

(As related by nephews George Reiswig and Ronald Reiswig)

In March 2004 I received the package I had been expecting for almost a year. The package was sent to me by an individual in California whose business card stated he specialized in “Personalized WW2 Historical Research”. The package contained a copy of the Department of the Army’s Individual Deceased Personal File for my uncle, PFC Willis W. Wacker, who had been killed in action in Normandy, France on July 27, 1944.

Consisting of 30 pages, the file was neatly organized into five sections: Official Documentation of Death, Personal Effects and Inventory, Correspondence, Burial and Miscellaneous. I had no idea such files existed.

PFC Willis W. “Willy” Wacker was born in Denhoff, North Dakota on June 8, 1920 and was living and working on a farm near Lincoln Valley, North Dakota, just a few miles from his birthplace, when he was inducted into the Army. Lincoln Valley was one of many small, rural North Dakota towns that no longer exist and to say that progress has passed it by is an understatement. I last visited the spot in 2003. Two dilapidated buildings, a few streets overgrown with grass and weeds and scattered groves of trees are the only things to mark the spot. I grew up on a farm about one mile from Lincoln Valley. During the 1940’s, it was a small thriving town which owed its existence to the many small farms in the Sheridan County area. Eventually the small towns were slowly abandoned as smaller farms were consolidated into larger farms and the rural migration to larger towns and cities began. Lincoln Valley didn’t have a stop light; it didn’t have a flashing light and I do not recall a stop sign. That’s how small it was; not even a town, just a village. The village was born in 1899 and died in 1972 when the last business closed.

Most of the Lincoln Valley area residents were German homesteaders from southern Russia to which many of them had immigrated to escape compulsory German military service. My uncle Willy was first generation American of German immigrant parents. His father passed away when Willy was 16. He was educated in rural Sheridan County schools and spent his summers working on my parent’s farm. His sister, Carolyn, was my mother. He was employed for a time in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was inducted into the Army on November 21, 1941, less than one year before I was born so, therefore, I never knew him.

My brother, Ron, was seven at the time and fondly remembers Willy as his “best friend”. He describes Willy as having a great sense of humor and one who loved practical jokes. He particularly enjoyed water fights using 3 gallon pails; water balloons hadn’t been invented yet. Ron states that “One did not attempt to eat a cream puff (one of my mother’s specialties) anywhere near him as you would get it plastered all over your face.” Willy was mechanically minded and tinkered with tractor engines to make them go faster. He would take the doors off the farm truck during harvest time to speed up entry and exit. You might say that he was addicted to speed.

Willy could not stand the sight of blood yet life on a farm routinely involved the slaughter and processing of animals for food. He would make himself scarce during these times and would reappear only after the mess was cleaned up. Of course the Army determined that he was an ideal choice for medical corpsman. He refused promotion to corporal so he could operate the ambulance rather than treat the wounded directly.

Willy was home on leave only once for just a few days during his military service. It was barely long enough to become engaged to be married prior to returning to his unit. Like many others who left sweethearts behind, Willy was unable to keep his promise to return.

His military service with the 2nd Armored Division took him to North Africa, Sicily, England and eventually to Normandy, France. His letters home were infrequent and heavily censored. At the end of one eight week period he wrote from North Africa that he had been busy “fox hunting” and had no time to write. It was an obvious reference to German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel who was known as the “Desert Fox”.

The 66th Armored Regiment is the oldest armored unit in the U.S. Army. In 1944 the regiment went into action on the European Continent, landing on Normandy’s beaches on June 9, three days after the initial Normandy landings. A week later the Regiment decisively defeated the German 6th Parachute Regiment and the 37th SS Panzer Regiment near Carenton, France.

The Germans were successful in keeping the Allied invaders bottled up on Normandy until July 25, 1944. Operation Cobra, the attack at Saint-Lo that led to the Allies breakout across France, commenced on July 24 with what was the largest aerial bombardment of WWII. The history of the 2nd Armored Division 1942 – 1945, whose motto was “Hell On Wheels”, has a description of the action in which Willy died:

“On July 25th, the Division moved into the VII Corps sector in preparation for the assault that was to crack Germany’s formidable Saint Lo-Vire River line. Combat Command “A” jumped off on 26 July, pushed through enemy lines north of St. Gilles, captured Canisy, and early on 27 July took its initial objective, Le Mesnil Herman. The 2d Battalion, 66 Armored Regiment, crossed the line of departure at 1000A 26 July 1944.” The fighting was very heavy during the period July 26 – 30.

Ron remembers the day they received the news that Willy had been killed in action. “I came into the house and found my mother was standing at the stove preparing a meal and tears were running down her cheeks. She told me what had happened and I ran outside and bawled for some time.”

Willy’s Deceased Personnel File lists his date, cause and place of death as simply “July 27, 1944, Killed in action, European Area”. Willy’s effects were carefully inventoried and catalogued prior to being sent to the Quartermaster General’s Depot in Kansas City, and then on to his mother, Mrs. Magdalena Wacker. The inventory consisted of 80 photographs, 3 campaign ribbons, 1 New Testament Bible, 1 watch chain, 1 razor, 1 knife, 1 belt buckle, 1 regimental insignia, 1 nail file, 1 scissors, 104 Francs, 3 Shillings and $3.71. His effects were quite sparse, which according to the researcher, was typical for those fighting in the European Theatre.

The records of the original burial of Willy’s remains show that he was killed in Normandy, France, by “GSW Pen, Left Axilla” which means he was killed in action by a gun shot wound, penetrating to the left armpit. He was originally buried on July 29, 1944 at the U.S. Military Cemetery at St. Mere Eglise, France. Ron remembers the memorial service held on August 27 in the high school gymnasium in Denhoff, North Dakota. “I could not take it and sat in the car during the service.”

After the war ended, families of deceased servicemen buried in Europe were given the option of having their remains returned to the U. S. This process, termed repatriation, was a huge undertaking as the remains of approximately 250,000 servicemen and women were disinterred, placed in metal coffins, loaded on ships and returned to the U.S. where they were accompanied to their final destination by a uniformed member of the armed forces.

In 1948, Willy’s remains were brought home aboard the USAT Greenville Victory, a Victory-type cargo ship especially modified for that purpose. They were shipped, accompanied by a military escort, on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad to McClusky, North Dakota, arriving the afternoon of July 13, 1948. He was buried with full military honors in the McClusky City Cemetery.

While I was aware that uncle Willy had been killed in Normandy, I was not aware of the details of his military service. A chance visit to the American military cemetery in Luxembourg while on a European trip sparked my interest in the details of his service. I came in contact with the military researcher while doing research on the 2nd Armored Division on the internet. Unbeknown to me at the time, information about WWII casualties was readily available provided that one knows where to look and how to obtain it. The researcher knew exactly how to do it including searching the local North Dakota Selective Service (Draft Board) records.

After receiving his Deceased Personnel File, I decided to visit Normandy and attempt to partially retrace the movement of the 66th Armored Regiment. The 2004 Normandy trip was an emotional, humbling experience. The tour included the landing beaches of Normandy, Caen, Canisys and St. Mere Eglise where Willy was initially buried. A visit to the American Battle Monuments Commission Normandy American Cemetery was the highlight of the trip. It covers 172.5 acres and is one of 14 permanent American World War II cemeteries constructed on foreign soil. Interred within the cemetery are the remains of 9,387 servicemen and women. The precisely aligned headstones against the immaculately maintained emerald green lawn convey an unforgettable feeling of peace and serenity.

There were several people from Ocean Pines on the trip and Sharyn O’Hare, co-chairperson of the Worcester County Veterans Memorial at Ocean Pines, led a brief memorial service at the cemetery. We carried with us an American flag, donated by Denny Bowers, a member of the Veterans Memorial Committee and Vietnam veteran, which was flown over the Normandy cemetery in the name of PFC Willis W. Wacker. Flags can be flown over the cemetery only in the name of those who were killed in the line of duty. That same flag was later used at both the groundbreaking and dedication ceremonies for the Ocean Pines Veterans Memorial. This flag was an emotional link to the Normandy beaches, the Normandy Military cemetery and to the thousands of American and Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who gave their lives during that epic struggle.

I did not have the privilege of knowing my uncle Willy. He was killed before I was born. Until the Normandy trip, the visit to the Normandy military cemetery and my involvement with the Ocean Pines Veterans Memorial, he existed only in an abstract sense. In the course of working on this book, personal interviews with veterans and the families of veterans, his short life and his ultimate sacrifice have taken on a new significance and meaning. Henry Koellein, Jr. the Marine who was wounded on Iwo Jima, best summarized it when speaking about his three Marine comrades who were killed on the beach during that engagement. When I asked him if he felt like a hero he responded directly and strongly. “I’m no hero, those three guys who died out there, they are the heroes.” Willy was a hero.

Willy’s remembrance is preserved with a paver at the Worcester County Veterans Memorial at Ocean Pines. I am hopeful that he and the memory of his sacrifice will live forever along with the thousands of others who gave their today so that we could have our tomorrows. The lyrics to the song The Last Full Measure of Devotion sung by Richard Jacobs at the Memorial dedication on Memorial Day, May 30, 2005 best capture the true sense of what they gave:

In the long and honored history of America
There are names that shine like beacons in the night
The Patriots whose vision gave us meaning
Who kept the lamp of freedom burning bright
In the long and honored history of America
There are those that paid the last and final price
Who were called upon by chance, or desperate circumstamce
To make the ultimate sacrifice
A greatful nation bows its head in sorrow
And in thanks for guaranteeing our tomorrow
The last full measure of devotion
Thats what they gave to the cause
The last full measure of devotion
And though they cannot hear our applause
We honor them forever and keep alive their story
Pay tribute to their lives and give them all the glory
The last full measure of devotion
Beyond the call of duty were their deeds
The last full measure of devotion
They gave themselves to serve the greater needs
And for those who did survive
And came back home alive
They join in praise of comrades who were slain
And highly resolved, most highly resolved
That these dead shall not have died in vain



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